Maureen Finnigan observes, “[Friedrich] Nietzsche assures us that ideal truth and pure reality are illusory, for they are utterly indemonstrable. Inasmuch as absolute truth and reality are unsubstantiated conjectures of the human mind, we are left with our perspective, which is not then imperfect or inferior truth, but the only truth. The truth is a claim made by an individual from a context in life. Hence, Nietzsche does not deny truth or reality, but provides an interpretation that redefines them. The sole opportunity for truth and the only experience of reality are from an individual’s perspective within life.”1
Nietzsche was concerned about the effects of nihilism on society and culture, not because he advocated nihilism. Nietzsche saw that the old values and old morality simply didn’t have the same power that they once did. God no longer mattered in modern culture and was effectively dead to us. He believed that there was no longer any real substance to traditional social, political, moral, and religious values, and science does not introduce a new set of values to replace the Christian values it displaces. Nietzsche rightly foresaw that people need to identify some source of meaning and value in their lives, and if they could not find it in science, they would turn to aggressive nationalism and other such salves. Narcissism is one such salve.
During the 1980s, school systems lowered educational standards to protect children from failure. This self-esteem movement has had a significant impact on the school system – in order to ensure positive self-esteem education standards were lowered, creating a milieu for extreme individualism. The world would be saved from crime, drug abuse and under-achieving through bolstering self-esteem. When there is too much self-esteem there are problems of self-tolerance, entitlement and narcissism. This person demands automatic and full compliance with his/her expectations. The cult of self-esteem that was created in the school system in the 1980s provides a pool of individuals in the 21st century who view the world from an emotional rather than a rational perspective, supporting extreme individualism and allowing personal feelings to over come the distinction between right and wrong.
Extreme individualism leads to narcissism and a declining sense of responsibility. Narcissism sets up the illusion that that once one has a feeling, then it must be reality. When narcissism is out of hand one can see many of the characteristics of deception between the rulers and the ruled (the people would be told what they need to now and no more) that Leo Strauss (whose writings have considerable influence on the neocons) believed were essential for modern politics. It is about bringing individuals of like thinking into their bubble, and attributing unique or perfect qualities to those with whom they associate. Strauss’ idea of a hierarchical system in which elites ruled is no different than the narcissist’s drive to be superior, to express distain for those whom they consider inferior, and to seize and control power over others that translates into the right to dominate the lesser creatures around themselves. Strauss was concerned the masses could not cope with this absence of absolute truth and required religion to provide moral values, but this did not apply the leaders of the movement.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, neocons, outraged by the excesses of the shattered society, created an intellectual underpinning for more traditional values. The neocons organized themselves as ‘intellectuals’ focused on shaping public policy. Neoconservative pundits have a tendency to assert something is true even if it is not and then repeat the assertion over and over again to give it credibility. After the Vietnam debacle neocons were concerned that Americans were afraid to make the effort and sacrifice required to sustain the exercise of power. In the late 1970s the neocons championed a renewed cold war and a huge military build up. The election of the Reagan administration saw the implementation of neoconservative evangelism of fear and consequently the beginning of the second cold war.
When traditional morality breaks down two things occur. A new ethic arises to replace the old worn out system and part of society tumbles into amorality or more correctly into nihilism and narcissism. With narcissism the greatest problem is profound disconnect from reality. These people believe that they are always right and that there is nothing that they cannot achieve. They tend to exploit others. In this system of self-tolerance their sense of entitlement leads to victimhood – placing blame for personal inadequacies elsewhere. They lack respect for authority and habitually lie to people. Students demand better grades than they earn. Corporate executives award themselves exorbitant salaries. Neoconservatives are involved in revisionism rather than admit to their mistakes predicting events in Iraq.
In the 1970s the neoconservatives fretted about the demise of capitalism because it could not preserve bourgeois virtues. The neoconservative lament of declining moral standards, the destruction of the traditional family, and the loss of will at home and nerve abroad (the ‘Vietnam syndrome’). The problem of the family (in the 1970s) the fact that the husband had lost patriarchal authority to the working wife, which in turn, pulmugated a new range of groups and issues that were considered threatening that included drugs, busing, crime, welfare, taxes, abortion, affirmative action, gay rights, women’s rights, divorce and general permissiveness. Neocons insisted that only restoring the rule of traditional authorities that included organized religion, traditional moral values, and the family could save America.2
Neocons argued because of the economic pressures arising from economic demands (associated with the ‘excess of democracy’) on the welfare state, taxes had been raised, inflation had increased and the sole male breadwinner was not able to sustain his family. The answer to capitalism’s moral decline was an assault on the counterculture. Neocons blamed the ‘new class’ whom they defined more or less as government bureaucrats and those professions that benefited most from an expanded government. These people, they claimed, profited from capitalism’s loss of moral legitimacy, because it increased the moral standing and power of noncommercial ‘nonprofit’ institutions they were associated with. The neocons’ attacks on the new class allowed them to take on an identity dear to all intellectuals in democratic societies, that of defending the common man against the elite – the bureaucrats and professionals of the new class. The attraction of the ‘new class’ theory for many neocons lay in the way it allowed them to cloth their aristocratic reaction to the counterculture in democratic language.3
Through brand extension the Tea Party movement has created a strong anti-intellectual movement amongst conservatives lumping experts and science as the enemy labeling them ‘ivory tower intellectuals”. Alliance of the Christian right and neoconservative intellectuals in think tanks with the financial right moved the Republican Party to the right and manipulated public opinion under the influence of sympathizing media oligarchs like Rupert Murdock. Neoconservatives believe in using the government to actively work to achieve conservative goals. Although most neoconservatives still favor a small government, they argue that the government must act assertively in some areas to promote conservative values and policies.
Narcissism and the feeling of entitlement create a group who oppose rational evidence of a debate, leading to polarized positions. In this culture, angry individuals can be recruited to causes without a rational debate. They feel justified in asserting themselves, defending their perceived rights. Everything they say and do is for effect. The truth is irrelevant; as they play for the reaction they want. This activity makes them extremely observant and perceptive; they can appear to be smart. They will tend to agree with people, that is, tell them what they think they want to hear, and then find subtle ways to undermine it.
During the self-esteem movement self-criticism and self-control have been replaced with self-expression and self-assertion. This thinking supports such visions as, “I have a right to my opinion, so my opinions are right” This leads to extreme individualism and self-tolerance. Narcissists can rationalize violence as being caused by evil strangers across the ocean that threaten their righteous and holy way of life, and blame others for the conflict so that they can justify their attacks. Their egotistical lust for superiority would support ‘might makes right’ and aggressive foreign policy. The neoconservatives brook no dissent about the righteousness of the American cause in Iraq.
Too much self-esteem leads to problems of self-tolerance and narcissism and an individual with an exaggerated sense of entitlement. Such individuals learn to tolerate their errors and personal flaws and come to accept themselves as okay. This person rarely admits to ignorance and regards his intuition and knowledge superior to objective data. Part of the bubble universe in which they recruit others involves groupthink. Groupthink is a pattern of thought characterized by self-deception, created by a faulty group decision-making process, which is not critical of each other’s ideas. Groups experiencing groupthink do not consider all the alternatives, and they desire unanimity at the expense of quality decisions. This group is highly cohesive, but isolated from contrary opinions.
Damon describes in Hands on Parenting that “self-esteem is a perfectly good thing for people to have, but it should be the result of good behavior. In other words you should feel good about yourself because you have done something right… We want to promote self-esteem that comes from achievement and service to others.”4 There are examples of such good behavior. The progressive movement takes on many issues that include the environment and social justice. The mainstream media breathlessly report Pope Francis urges activists to struggle against the ‘structural causes’ of poverty. This is a person who lives Christ’s life, and after studying reality, reflecting on it and, only later, takes action. This is the old morality of the past connecting with the post-modern ethic of the progressive.
An old cliché is that “the first casualty of war is truth”. The neocons ridicule anyone who opposes further involvement in Iraq and blame the ongoing instability in Iraq on President Obama – ignoring the manipulation of intelligence and media engineered by neocons during the Bush administration to get the US into the war. When it comes to issues like the Iraq War the neocons are divorced from reality. At best they are a cult, an exclusive group of individuals sharing a devotion to ideas, principles and intellectual interests. Another reason that neocon activities are not part of a political movement because their political posturing is consistent with narcissism.
1 Finnigan, Maureen. (2000) “Nietzsche’s Perspective: Beyond Truth as an Ideal.” http://www.iwm.at/wp-content/uploads/jc-06-09.pdf
2 Campbell David. (1998) University of Minnesota Press. Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity. p 165.
3 Kahan, Allan S. (2010) Mind vs Money: The War Between Intellectuals and Capitalism. New Brunswick, N. J.: Transaction Press p 236.
4 Horsman, Greg. (2011) The Narcissist’s Vocation and the Economic Debacle, p 202.